“I’ve heard you have the best pitas in all of Sofia.”
“Who am I to argue with what people are saying?” Jamal said, looking up from the cash register to find a well-dressed middle-aged man drumming his fingers on the counter. “What can I get you?”
“Would it be possible to make an order for one hundred and fifty?”
Jamal stepped back, not surprised at the large order but rather that the man was speaking to him in colloquial Arabic. “I’m sure that can be arranged,” he said, turning to his brother for confirmation. Standing near one of the ovens, Amar nodded his consent.
“Good,” the customer said. “I will pay you now, in advance. Could you have the order ready if I come by tomorrow at three?”
Jamal rang up the purchase and handed over the change and a receipt. “Dovizhdane,” he said, instinctively saying goodbye in Bulgarian.
“Shukran,” the man replied in Arabic as he left the bakery.
“He’s Israeli!” Amar said, slapping Jamal on the shoulder and sending a small cloud of flour to settle on the keys of the register.
“No, that can’t be true!” Jamal picked up a dust cloth but paused, thinking of the stranger’s dark features, features that would not seem out of place on the streets of Damascus. “A Middle Eastern accent, for sure. Maybe Iraqi? Or Egyptian? Certainly not Israeli.”
“Didn’t you see his car? It had a red diplomatic license plate.”
“What would an Israeli be doing in our bakery? He knows where we’re from.”
“He came here for pitas, like everyone else. Why are you complaining? It’s good business.”
An Israeli visiting a Syrian bakery in Bulgaria? Jamal smiled to himself. There had been stranger things. But then, a thought came to him. He would talk to the man, Jamal decided, ask him where he’s from. If he was an Israeli, as Amar claimed, perhaps they could have a conversation. Strange bedfellows they were, for sure, but maybe it would be possible to have a meaningful discussion with him, to bridge their cultural and political differences. Jamal had a chance to make peace with someone who had once been an enemy. He looked forward to the Israeli’s return to the bakery. The man would appreciate Jamal’s goodwill and, more than that, he would be very satisfied with the pitas.
* * *
The brothers’ bakery was wedged in between an electrical supplies store and a tobacco shop on the ground floor of a nondescript tenement. Syrian Brothers, with its sign posted above the entrance in Bulgarian, Arabic, and English. The bakery was so small that only two or three customers could stand inside at a time to place orders. In the back, the preparation tables were set next to the four-door refrigerators, across from the ovens. A short hallway led to the storage area. Lacking larger facilities, the brothers limited themselves to two types of bread—black and rye; two types of banitsa pastries—cheese and pumpkin; and pitas. For some reason, the bakery enjoyed the most success selling the pitas.
Syrian Brothers was not the only bakery in Sofia that made pitas, but its loyal customers assured the bakers that theirs were the best in the city, if not in the entire country. The Iraqi bakery was known for its flatbread, but with no form of leavening agent, their pitas were truly flat, and the Lebanese bakery’s product tasted somewhat dry. The brothers’ pita, on the other hand, rose like a light and fluffy cake encasing a roomy pocket; its aroma warm and yeasty. The growing demand for the Syrians’ bread kept the brothers busy preparing their dough, loading their ovens, and serving the public, ten pitas a bag.
“Give me a package, no, make that two.”
“A true taste of the Middle East!”
Jamal, the older brother, could not help but smile. Who would have ever imagined a pediatrician from Damascus baking pitas in Bulgaria? A doctor, whose hands were now covered in flour. The success of the bakery, Jamal knew, was entirely due to Amar’s knowledge and skills. Amar had apprenticed in a bakery; it was his idea to set up one for the family in their new home. Jamal had never dreamed of changing professions but as he didn’t have a license to practice in Bulgaria, and with a family to feed, he started working alongside his brother. Still, the life he’d left behind, and the career he’d reluctantly abandoned, often filled him with bittersweet memories.
“Did you come here because of the civil war?” asked an elderly gentleman who came to purchase two loaves of rye bread shortly after the large order for pitas had been received. “Are you refugees?”
“No, no,” Jamal replied, not offended by the question. “I’ve been here ten years already, and my brother came before me.”
“Why did you come to Bulgaria of all places?”
Why indeed? Jamal thought back to his decision to leave Syria and follow in his brother’s footsteps. Bulgaria would serve as their temporary home, Amar promised. They would remain in the country while they arranged transportation to Sweden, where there was a large Muslim population. Bulgaria was the poorest country in the European Union—Jamal knew this before his arrival—but he hoped living in Sofia would grant his family an opportunity to get a new start, to have a better life. It hadn’t been an easy transition. Syria to Turkey and from there to Bulgaria. And then ten years passed by.
“Maybe I’ll move on one day,” he said, “but for now I’m in Sofia.”
* * *
Jamal was heavyset and bull-necked, and was balding quickly. He was much more outgoing than his brother and that was why he dealt with the customers and worked the cash register. He smiled constantly and greeted many of the regulars by name. It was Jamal who generously distributed any unsold products. He donated a few loaves of bread once a week to an orphanage, and he gave a percentage of his share of the bakery’s profits to Family First, a Muslim charity that operated in Bulgaria. The banitsa that didn’t sell he delivered to a young man who lived up the street who he feared might be a drug addict. And each morning Jamal gave black bread to the gypsy mother and daughter who lived upstairs above the bakery.
Their names were Lyuba and Mirela. Mirela must be a year or two older than Ali, he thought, but the girl never spoke so he couldn’t be sure. The mother had shifty, untrusting eyes, always quick to grab whatever he offered her with barely a word of thanks. Lyuba would show up at the bakery’s entrance in colorful, ruffled skirts; gold bangles on her wrists, her curly hair wild and unkempt. Mirela wore dirty, faded jeans and a stained T-shirt. He felt sorry for them as they seemed to be all alone in the world.
“Dubro utro,” he would greet them in the mornings and Lyuba would mutter a response while Mirela would squat down, petting the calico cat that made the bakery its home. Jamal wondered why the girl wasn’t in school, and where they went each day, but when he asked Lyuba questions, she would dismiss his concern with a wave of her hand. By the time he turned to serve the other customers, the pair was gone.
“Stay away from those no-good gypsies,” Amar warned him. “They are the lowest level of society and are best to be left alone.”
Still, Jamal felt he should be giving them something more than leftover bread and the occasional pastry, but Lyuba appeared to be a stubborn woman. What more could he do?
* * *
The bakery was located not far from Zhenski Pazar, the open-air Ladies Market. Jamal didn’t know why this was its name; his wife went there more often than him. Halima shopped in the market for the family’s fruits and vegetables, for spices and coffee beans. Sometimes when he wasn’t in school, Ali, their 8-year-old son, accompanied his mother to help carry the groceries she purchased, but usually he stayed home to care for his two younger siblings. Halima preferred to go shopping on her own anyway, as it gave her time to search for the best deals. She was a whiz at haggling with the merchants, at negotiating a better price. And Halima’s Bulgarian was much better than that of her husband.
“When I speak, they immediately know I’m a foreigner, an Arab,” Jamal complained. “And because of my accent, they raise the prices!”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” Halima replied. “They don’t raise the prices for you—they lower them for me. It’s best you focus on the bakery and I’ll continue with the shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. And caring for our three young children—there’s that, too. I’m not complaining. That’s the way it is.”
Amar would open the bakery in the pre-dawn hours each morning, turning on the lights, heating up the ovens, and boiling water for the day’s first glass of strong black coffee with cardamom. He was slim, but fit, as if he had a gym membership, which he didn’t. Amar was not particularly talkative, but when he had an opinion about something, he didn’t hesitate to express it.
Usually the brothers worked side by side in silence, preparing the flour and adding the yeast mixture, kneading the dough before covering it and leaving it to double in size, then kneading it again into balls. It always amazed Jamal that a batter he helped prepare could emerge from a hot oven as a pita more delicious than anything he had ever eaten in Damascus.
There was no shortage of work in the bakery but occasionally, Jamal and Amar had a chance to sit for a cigarette break and discuss their lives in Bulgaria, and what things would be like if they had remained in Syria. Amar was of the opinion that one day the conditions would be right for them to continue their journey to Sweden, as originally planned, but Jamal was homesick for Damascus, and the lives they’d left behind.
“I will never fit in here,” he remarked to Amar. “The culture, the language, the customs. Look at us, trying to support our families while pretending to be Bulgarians. I still consider Syria to be my home.”
“Syria is not the same,” Amar reminded him. In the evenings, they listened to radio broadcasts reporting the war, deeply concerned for family members that remained in the country. The news troubled them, the worsening situation proving there was no turning back.
“Bulgaria is our home now and we need to make the best of it,” Amar said.
His brother spoke wise words, Jamal realized. Life in Syria would forever be nothing more than a memory. With Jamal’s three children born and raised in Sofia, and the demands of working in the bakery, their chances of reaching Sweden were growing slimmer every day.
* * *
When Jamal told Halima about the large pita order and Amar’s suspicion that the customer was Israeli, she surprised him with her reaction. “We are at war and you’re supplying our enemy with ammunition.”
“Pitas are ammunition? And, of what war do you speak? Today our conflicts are with each other, not with the Israelis.”
“You know what I mean. I wouldn’t trust any Israeli coming to the bakery. He must have an ulterior motive. Maybe he’s a spy!”
“He came to buy pitas,” Jamal said. “We may be in conflict back home—Syria and Israel—but in Bulgaria we can find ways to live in peace.” Jamal knew any mention of Israel reopened old wounds for his wife. Her father had been killed in an Israeli airstrike when she was in grade school.
“There’s no need to feel threatened by Israelis,” Jamal said to her, “and certainly not here. Bulgaria is open to everyone, Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. In any case, he’s just buying pitas. There’s nothing sinister about that.”
“Why do I even bother trying to make you understand?” Halima shrugged her shoulders and went into the kitchen. “Let me finish cooking while you finalize your plans for detente with the Israelis!”
* * *
The next day, there was a steady stream of customers and the rye bread sold out quickly. During the morning the brothers had only the briefest break for coffee but there was a lull in the early afternoon, giving Jamal a chance to balance the cash register. A noise outside the bakery made him look toward the door. Someone was crying. Crying? It was much more hysterical than that. He glanced at Amar, but his brother had his head down as he attended to a tray of steaming pastries. Jamal shut the register and rushed out to the street.
Lyuba was crouched against the wall with her arms around her knees. She rocked back and forth, moaning and muttering words that Jamal didn’t understand. He bent down and gently touched her shoulder. She pulled away and stared at him, terror in her eyes.
“Lyuba?” When he repeated her name in a soft voice, she took a deep breath and her tense expression eased a bit. But she offered no explanation for her distress. He stood up and looked around. “Where is Mirela? Is she okay?”
“Fever!” Lyuba wailed. “And blisters!”
“Blisters? What are you talking about?”
Lyuba looked to the ground and resumed her strange rocking. He reached out to her again. “Let me see her,” he said calmly. “Don’t worry, I was a doctor.” And then he corrected himself. “I am a doctor.”
Reluctantly, Lyuba rose to her feet and entered the building. Despite the bakery being located right next door, Jamal had never ventured inside or imagined the bags of garbage, the stench of urine and decay. The single lightbulb flickering on each landing. What squalid living conditions, he thought, but the starkness of Lyuba’s apartment was even more disturbing. Two wooden chairs, a small Formica-topped table, a noisy half-sized refrigerator, and a lumpy mattress on the floor on which the girl was lying, shivering under a thin blanket.
“Fever,” Lyuba said, but Jamal could see it was something more. Mirela’s eyes were glazed and her forehead was burning to the touch. She had a reddish rash; he noticed it first on her face and neck. He lowered himself to his knees and when he pulled back the blanket and carefully lifted her dirty T-shirt, he saw the rash had spread on the girl’s chest. Small red bumps that looked like pimples, or insect bites. Symptoms Jamal had seen many times before.
“She has…” he started to say, but then he realized he didn’t remember the word for chickenpox in Bulgarian. He should know it, he told himself, because he was quite familiar with the illness. Many of his patients at the Damascus clinic had suffered from the same itchy rash. His own children had been vaccinated, thankfully, but why not this young girl in Sofia? Chickenpox. What was the translation?
“Sharka!” he said at last, hopeful that he got it right. Lyuba’s eyes clouded, as if he was speaking to her in a foreign language, and not Bulgarian. But then he sensed some recognition in her eyes, maybe not a familiarity with the illness but an understanding that he was a doctor who knew what he was talking about.
“Is she, …will she?” Lyuba asked, her voice barely more than a whisper as she stroked Mirela’s hair, pulling it back from her face.
“You can use cool wet compresses to help take down the fever. She can even have a bath in oatmeal.”
“Yes,” he said, hoping simple instructions would be relatable to an anxious mother. But when he saw Lyuba flinch at the suggestion, and when he took in the bare shelves and the sparse furniture, he added, “I may have some for you in the bakery,” and these words seemed to calm her.
“Pat her body dry, instead of rubbing,” he continued. “Mirela should drink plenty of liquids. And you can get a lotion at a pharmacy to stop the itching. There is no need for a prescription.” He smiled at Mirela, but the girl appeared to have fallen asleep.
Still, Lyuba looked worried. “She will be okay in a few days,” he reassured her. “And if you need me again, I’m in the bakery. Don’t hesitate to come get me.”
Jamal stood up and wiped his hands on his flour-coated apron. Who would have thought that a pediatrician from Damascus, who changed his profession to begin baking pitas in Sofia, would once again be called upon to demonstrate his medical skills?
Just as he was about to leave the apartment, Lyuba called out to him. “Blagodariya,” she said, thanking him. He hurried down the stairs.
As he left the building, he saw an elegantly dressed man bending to place bags of freshly baked pitas on the backseat of a shiny black SUV. As Jamal stared at the vehicle, the man slammed the door shut and went around to the driver’s seat. Jamal sighed when he noticed the red diplomatic license plate as the car pulled away from the curb.
About the Author:
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair.